Bibliographic data

Mason, James K.: Experience of nationhood, Modern Australia since 1901. McGraw-Hill Book Co., 4th ed. [4. Aufl.], 2002, 40–42.

"Aboriginal Australians"

[p. 40]




How were the Australian Aboriginal people treated by white Australia in the years up to the outbreak of World War I?

The Australian Aboriginals were not only the first occupiers of the continent; they have lived here for at least 50 000 years, possibly longer - lifespans that represent over 2000 generations. Placed in the context of just over 200 years of white occupation - a mere eight generations - the contrast is overwhelming.

It is estimated that when white settlement began in Australia in 1788 there were 300 000 Aboriginal people, divided into at least 500 groups, or tribes, with a rich cultural tradition and many languages and dialects. They were a people with a close relationship with the land and through the land they maintained their links to ancestral Aboriginal spirits. The land was sacred, and for tens of thousands of years they lived in harmony with the land. By 1901, at the time of federation, the number of Aboriginal people in Australia had fallen to only 60 000. The tribal groups were almost all broken up and the cultural traditions of the people were fast declining.

The Aboriginal people failed to cope with the arrival of white settlement of the continent. They progressively lost their traditional lands and fell victim to exploitation, violence and disease. As they became dispossessed they became dependent on white people. Their labour was exploited, many family groups were broken up, and thousands of Aboriginal people survived on handouts. In every sense, Aboriginal people were denied the protection given to white Australians because they were regarded as an inferior race.

The Australian Constitution in 1901 made only two references to Aboriginals and both aimed to exclude them from participating in the life of the new nation. Section 127 of

[p. 41]

the Constitution said that ‘in reckoning the number of the people in the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted’. Aboriginals were not to be regarded as Australians. Section 51 gave the federal government the power to pass laws about ‘the people of any race other than the Aboriginal race in any State’'. Except for Aboriginals living in Australian territories, such as the Northern Territory, the welfare of Aboriginal people was a state matter. Both of these sections of the original Constitution were removed in a referendum in 1967 (see page 237).


Extract from a 1930s school textbook

When people talk about the history of Australia they mean the history of the white people who have lived in Australia. There is a good reason why we should not stretch that term to make it include the story of the dark-skinned wandering tribes who hurled boomerangs and ate snakes in their native land long ago before the arrival of the first intruders from Europe. W Murdock, The Making of Australia, Whitcomb & Tombs, Melbourne, 1930.

  • According to this extract, when did Australian history begin?
  • Explain why comments like this in a school textbook would have been accepted in 1930.
  • Explain what is unusual about the word ‘intruders’ in this extract.

Under the Constitution the right to vote in the federal elections was given to anyone who had the right to vote in the states. Aboriginal people did have the right to vote in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, but no right to vote in Queensland and Western Australia. In 1902, when the parliament of Australia debated the Commonwealth Franchise Act designed to give the vote to women and Aboriginal Australians, women got the vote but Aboriginals did not. Section 41 of the act denied the right to vote to ‘Aboriginal natives of Australia, Africa, or the islands of the Pacific except New Zealand’. The Sydney Morning Herald, in 1902, stated the feeling of many when it wrote, ‘To grant the franchise [right to vote] to Aboriginals, for instance, is to confer a short-lived privilege on a dying race’.

[A house with Australian architecture (natural construction materials, primarily wood, on short stilts, probably only one room, one doorway, two windows to the left and right with curtains, a short wooden ladder for a staircase), with an Aborigine family in front of the house; man and wife to the left of the door, a girl and a man with a gun to the right and, at the forefront, a little girl sitting on a horse.]

SOURCE 1.51 An Aboriginal family outside their house, 1910
Image record number: 5921 By permission of the National Library of Australia

[p. 42]


There was a belief held by many white Australians in the last century, and well into the twentieth century, that the Aboriginal people were indeed a dying race. This idea came from the belief that the white race was in some way superior. In his famous book On The Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest in nature caused many to accept the idea of Social Darwinism - that the same concept applied to races. To most white Australians, the Aboriginal was seen to be part of a primitive race. At a time of great ignorance and lack of sympathy, it was easy to accept the racist argument that they were a race doomed to extinction.

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